Żydowska Warszawa

Leopold Sobel

Purses from Zjednoczenie, nylon jackets from Optima

As an eighteen-year-old, Poldek left Poland for Israel in 1964. He was a soldier in the Six-Day War and the War of Attrition. He studied in Tel Aviv and earned his PhD in the UK. He is an expert on the history of the Baltic region. In 2002 he founded “Plotkies”, an online magazine for the expatriates of March 1968, and remains its editor-in-chief. He currently lives in Lund, Sweden. His Jewish Warsaw consists of places that have changed greatly and people who are also mostly gone. However, their memory is alive in Leopold's anecdotes.

“My Jewish life in the capital only lasted a short time, as I left for Israel almost immediately after graduating from high school,” says Sobel. “I was born in 1946 in the centre of Warsaw (in the hospital at the corner of Koszykowa and Chałubińskiego St.) and until 1949 I lived with my parents at the corner of Nowowiejska and Krzywickiego St. In the years 1949-1953 I lived in Wrocław. Then once again, until matriculation, in Warsaw.

1.Gocławska/Grochowska Streets

Although we lived four tram stops away from a school (there was also a ‘choo-choo train’ in Grochowska Street), my parents decided to send me to the Primary School of the Association of the Friends of Children (Polish: Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Dzieci, TPD) No. 1 at the corner of Gocławska and Grochowska Streets, because Catholic religion was not taught there,” Sobel reminisces. “For the same reason, other Jewish children from my neighbourhood went there as well. There were quite a few of us in my class, perhaps seven out of over thirty students. The same was true for other classes. 

A year above me was my faithful friend from Israel Zenek Borensztajn, nicknamed ‘Szczypawa’, and in the year below me was another of my good friends, Ludwik Kahane, known as ‘Piszczyk’, who now lives in Copenhagen. Ludwik lived in one of the blocks opposite the school, a housing estate known as the ‘white blocks’ (although now they are painted different colours) at 309 Grochowska Street.

Across the street from the Kahane family lived the Rozenwaks family, whose older daughter Larysa, known as Rysia, was also in my class. I was deeply in love with Rysia since the second year, so I often visited the families Rozenwaks and Kahane. 


The story of my love for Rysia ended in 1957, when most Jewish children from our school moved to Israel. Part of the reason was the change of status of the school and the political situation. In 1956 all schools in Poland, including ours, started teaching religion as a subject, and the name of the school was changed from TPD No. 1 to Primary School No. 20. There were some unpleasant incidents: Jewish children who did not attend religious lessons were bullied, sometimes even beaten by colleagues coming back from religious instruction.


2.Międzyborska Street 64/70

My next school was the Wyspiański High School No. 47 on Międzyborska Street. It still bears the same name today. I only had one Jewish classmate – Irena G. One class above me was my friend Józio Kuszyński, who knew judo and defended the wimps: me and Natan Erdberg, who now lives in the US, but used to be in the class below me. Józio disappeared from school in the eleventh year and a few months later I met him in Israel in Ulpan (in a Hebrew language course). He was an interesting guy and a good person, but he fell in with criminals and died at the hands of some thugs.

My participation in the Jewish community in Warsaw was initially quite limited. Until 1959 I often went on holiday trips with my friends from Wrocław, but after most of them moved to Israel in 1957, I often spent summer holidays in and around Nysa, where my father worked in a car factory.

3.Marszałkowska Street 84

That started to change around 1961, when my father returned to Warsaw and my mother started working at the “Optima” Jewish tailors' cooperative, an institution that played a significant role in my life. What were Jewish cooperatives? After 1956, when Jews were once again allowed to travel to Israel, many Polish Jews left the country. On the other hand, the Soviet Union opened its borders for the repatriation of former Polish citizens, and several thousand Jews moved back to Poland. Most of them left for Israel almost immediately, but many decided to stay for various reasons. To ensure their employment, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (also known as the Joint), which provides assistance to Jews throughout the world, agreed with the authorities of the People's Republic of Poland that it would assist the repatriates by organizing training courses with the help of the Jewish educational organization ORT and by creating jobs in cooperatives. That initiative gave unemployed Jews an opportunity to earn a living after losing their jobs in the army, government service, the Office of Security etc. as a result of anti-Semitic propaganda. Before the war, my mother graduated from a traditional Jewish home economics school in Lviv, which did not give her a real profession. After completing an ORT course in dressmaking, she started to work from home. She made all sorts of things, from simple headkerchiefs to extremely fashionable nylon raincoats. Joint helped by sending supplies from abroad. Moreover, a portion of the finished goods were sold in Poland and some were sent to the Soviet Union as “fraternal assistance”.

In this building on the mezzanine were the offices of the Optima cooperative. Today in the building there is a coffee shop, owned by the March ’68 émigré Adam Ringer. Photo: A. Kokowska

The office of the Optima tailors' cooperative was located in the still existing building at 84 Marszałkowska Street, on the corner of Nowogrodzka Street. It was the realm of Chairman Rozenbarg, a rotund middle-aged man and a respectable person. He had a very pretty Polish wife. After the events of March 1968, he left for Israel, as did most employees of the Optima cooperative. Once there, he tried to rebuild the business with his associates, but he did not succeed.

In addition to the main office, the cooperative had warehouses and homeworker service offices. One of the latter was located on Armii Ludowej Avenue and was headed by Mr Suknik, father of two pretty and nice girls. Today, one lives in Copenhagen and the other in Malmö, Sweden. The Suknik parents died in Israel; I think my mother kept in touch with them until the end.

Another office was located on Senatorska Street and that one I visited quite often to leave my mother's products, which I handed to a very short man. He told me once that during the war he had belonged to the French underground organization Maquis and specialized in “dirty jobs”, i.e. executing traitors. I never had a chance to find out if that was true. 

The third office was in a cooperative warehouse in Praga (61/63 Grodzieńska Street, Szmulowizna neighbourhood), managed by my father's friend from Grochów, Mr Odoner. His son, Henryk, has recently returned to Poland and is working at the editorial office of “Słowo Żydowskie”.

In addition to the tailors' cooperative, there was the Tłumacz cooperative, specializing in translations. Its chairman was Mr Borensztajn, head of what was probably the largest Jewish family in Warsaw, which in addition to other relatives included his six sons (one of whom was my friend) and one daughter. There was also the leatherworkers' cooperative Odrodzenie (English: revival), commonly referred to as Przyrodzenie (English: phallus). Its buildings were located on what is today Twarda Street, (but then bore the name of the Commission of the National Council until the corner of Miedziana Street) and on Wołoska Street. Another pursemaking cooperative was called Zjednoczenie (English: unity) and was located on Targowa Street. It employed many fathers of my friends: Mr Gruszka, Mr Klamra, Mr Gurwicz and Mr Berengaut.

4.Nowogrodzka Street 5

Thanks to my mother's connections in the Jewish community, at a very young age I started to visit the youth club of the Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (Polish: Towarzystwo Społeczno-Kulturalne Żydów w Polsce) at 5 Nowogrodzka Street, which gave me a chance to meet young Jews from other parts of Warsaw.

It is difficult to condense into a few words the importance of the club, the building and the organization for the last group of Jews remaining in Poland in the 1960s. Let me just mention the youth. On Saturday evenings the club organized immensely popular dances, which attracted young people from all over downtown Warsaw and surrounding areas. Apart from fun activities, the club also offered a large choice of classes, for example in the Jewish language (a common name for Yiddish) taught first by Ms Bursztyn, then Mr Feldhendler, meetings with interesting people, singing competitions, and card game enthusiasts could find dedicated partners for bridge, a popular game among young Jews. It was the venue of some phenomenal concerts, for example by Sława Przybylska, who performed Israeli and Jewish songs just after her return from a tour of Israel. Trips were organized on various occasions, e.g. the unveiling of the Monument to the Victims of the Holocaust in Treblinka. Interestingly, the club catered not only to Jewish youth. During the time I attended the club, the manager was Czesław Prokopczyk (who moved to the US after March 1968), and one of the leading youth activists was Wiesiek Łuszczyna, known under the nickname Fredek, who also left Poland after March 1968, initially for Israel, then Sweden. Aside from the youth club, the building at 5 Nowogrodzka Street housed various offices, but young people were mostly interested in the cafeteria, located on the mezzanine and managed by Ms Cyla.

I am still close with many of the friends I made at the club and TSKŻ summer camps.

5.Królewska Street 11 (Piłsudskiego Square)

Another Jewish institution I remember well from that time was the Jewish Theatre (Polish: Teatr Żydowski). It was located on what is today Piłsudskiego Square (formerly Zwycięstwa Square). It is now the site of the modern Sofitel Warsaw Victoria hotel. 

In the place of a hotel there was once a Jewish Theatre. Photo: A. Kokowska

My mother would often drag me to the theatre; I went reluctantly, because even though I understood the language and headphones with translation into Polish were already available, I found the performances boring. I went to the theatre willingly for youth events connected to Jewish holidays such as Hanukkah and Purim, which can be observed without visiting the synagogue – I liked having fun in a group, but prayer was not a priority. In addition to watching special performances, we received gift packages, which usually contained oranges (from Israel, naturally) and chocolate. At one of those events Lolek Borensztajn, younger brother of the aforementioned Zenek, sat next to me. When I got up for a moment, Lolek, perpetually hungry (his parents had seven children and never enough money), devoured my chocolate, but left the oranges. Today Lolek lives near San Francisco and whenever we meet, we remind each other of what happened at the Jewish Theatre.

6.Kredytowa Street 6

While we are on the subject of food, I should mention Amika, the only truly Jewish restaurant, located at 6 Kredytowa Street. My mother, daughter of a Lviv restaurateur (my grandfather owned several establishments; the one opposite the barracks of the 14th Regiment of Jazlowiec Uhlans was famous in Lviv for its excellent herring), disliked eating out. She said she knew the stuff they put in restaurant food. When she left to spend three months in Israel in 1962 and my dad started cooking mahala (a Jewish “stew”) with canned beef from the US, which may have dated back to the war, I rebelled and told him we should go to a restaurant. His choice was Amika, where we had excellent gehackte leber (chopped liver), herring, yoykh mit lokshen (chicken soup with noodles) and cholent. The manager of the restaurant was a well-known figure in Warsaw Jewish circles, Mr Marek Immerglick. He was not only a connoisseur of Jewish cuisine and excellent restaurateur, but also a great singer of Jewish songs. If I remember correctly, in 2004 Mr Immerglick celebrated his 90th birthday. In honour of the occasion, a concert was dedicated to him. It was held in Copenhagen, where he moved after March 1968, at the synagogue where he worked as a shames (janitor), and Mr Immerglick himself gave a performance. Back to the Amika restaurant, I am confident that it served genuine Jewish food and the menu certainly did not include “Jewish-style pork chops”, unlike some restaurants in Poland today.

7.Krzywickiego Street 24

BUilding SOCialism in Israel

In March 1964, when I turned 18 and felt independent, I went to the Embassy of Israel at 24 Krzywickiego Street. It happened to be a Sunday, but that is not a holiday for Israeli institutions. After answering questions through closed doors, saying who I was and what I came for, they let me in and one of the embassy staff gave me advice and financial support, because the trip I was planning was not cheap. In 1964 emigration was not a popular choice.

8.Nowolipie Street 2 (Mostowski Palace)

Then I went to the Passport Office, which was located in the Mostowski Palace at 2 Nowolipie Street. The entrance was in the back of the building. I was directed to a gloomy room where I was greeted by a police officer, clearly very pleased. Apparently the Passport Office did not have many visitors interested in going to Israel.

I did not have a single bad experience dealing with my travel formalities. The only person who wanted to persuade me to stay in Poland was the headmaster of my high school, Mr Szeptycki. He was disappointed that I did not want to stay and build socialism in Poland. I said I did want to build socialism, but in Israel.

9.Dworzec Gdański

After settling all the formalities, earning my matriculation certificate and filling large crates with things that would turn out to be completely useless upon arrival, in mid-October I set out for Warszawa Gdańska railway station. Dozens of my friends from the Nowogrodzka Street club and summer camps were already waiting there to bid me farewell. Although my parents were very sad to see me leave (they did not join me in Israel until 1970), I felt like a Zionist hero. 

Nonetheless, it was a cheerful occasion, so we started singing Yiddish songs. We even went through “Hava Nagila” – a folk song usually sung at holiday celebrations – in Hebrew, and several people did the chora dance. However, the train finally pulled out and my Polish life came to an end. A new, difficult life in Israel was beginning.




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